Christie, manager of Trump’s transition project, focused on the conversion of political appointees to civil service positions and the long-held desire of Republicans to make firing feds faster.
“It’s called burrowing,” Christie said of the conversions in an audio recording obtained by Reuters, which broke the story. “You take them from the political appointee side into the civil service side, to try to set up … roadblocks for your successor.”
Burrowing conjures images of a ferret, taking over a prairie dog’s underground abode and eating the original homeowner. In the federal government, it evokes a political agent getting a protected job, perhaps at the expense of a career worker. Christie takes it a step further, adding the notion of a Democratic operative becoming a civil servant to sabotage Trump initiatives.
The image is more dramatic than the reality.
Burrowing gets some attention every presidential election year, but the practice can only be so sinister if it is so scarce. Almost all political appointees leave government when their party does.
During the four years beginning in May 2005, 42 federal agencies converted only about 140 political and congressional employees to career slots, according to 2010 Government Accountability Office report. That period includes 2008, a presidential election year when burrowing would most likely occur. There are more than 2 million federal employees.
Seven of those conversions “may not have adhered to merit system principles, followed proper procedures, or may have engaged in prohibited personnel practices or other improprieties,” GAO found. “Some of the improper procedures included preselecting particular individuals for career positions and selecting former political appointees who appeared to have limited qualifications and/or experience relevant to the career positions.”
Policies are in place to protect against those irregularities. In January, Beth Cobert, the acting Office of Personnel Management (OPM) director, reminded agencies “of the need to ensure all personnel actions remain free of political influence or other improprieties.” OPM must approve conversions from political slots to civil service positions.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent letters to two dozen agencies on Wednesday asking for information on burrowing.
Burrowing runs “the risk of favoring political staff at the expense of more qualified career applicants. Conversions also create morale problems, in that qualified career applicants who lose out on promotions to applicants from the agency’s political staff can rightly wonder if the process was legitimate,” Chaffetz wrote.
While burrowing is a fair, albeit small, concern, Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, said the large number of political appointees and merit selection generally are bigger issues.
The thousands of political appointees — there are about 3,200 according to OPM data — suggest vestiges of the spoils system, Stier said. Providing jobs to political supporters is a form of political power. Christie did not recommend Trump curtail patronage.
Christie also told the donors that Trump’s team thinks businesspeople should be able to work part-time in government without giving up their private sector jobs. That could raise conflicts of interest.
Regarding the general federal workforce, the governor urged Trump “to immediately ask the Republican Congress to change the civil service laws. Because if they do, it will make it a lot easier to fire those people.”
That’s consistent with the 2016 Republican platform: “A Republican administration should streamline personnel procedures to expedite the firing of bad workers, tax cheats, and scammers.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, called that “yet another unsurprising attack on federal workers. … The solution to dealing with a few bad employees is not to change civil service laws to undermine the due process rights of all federal employees but to find ways to help agencies and managers implement existing authorities more efficiently and effectively to discipline bad actors.”
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon reminded Republicans that “due process for federal employees is a Constitutionally-protected right and the right to have a collective voice at work through union representation is also critical to all workers, but this platform criticizes both.
“Due process protections are in place for very good reasons,” he added. “To protect whistleblowers and to keep the federal workplace free from political influence and whims.”